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Grand Theft Auto IV: Early review

  • Story Highlights
  • GTA IV "more grown-up" entry than any previous game in the series
  • The game unveils itself in layers. At first only a few missions become available
  • Characters remember what you do and will react later
  • The story's focus on Niko and his relationships remains steadfast
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By Douglass C. Perry
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( -- To watch the opening scenes of "Grand Theft Auto IV" is to experience the beginning of a new chapter in video game storytelling.

Do the open-world multiplayer games benefit gamers or do they hinder focused gameplay?

Initial cutscenes show lead character and Eastern European immigrant Niko Bellic on a commercial cargo ship passing into the Liberty City's harbor; next you see a baker who eyes a diamond before folding it into a cake.

Rockstar's opening credits appear in a stylistic typeface on walls, floors, and ceilings, as if part of the passing scenery.

The camera captures industrial workers, immigrants, and Russian workmen drinking and carousing on board before arriving onshore, each one met by a cheerful relative or friend -- all except Niko, who is left alone on the dark docks.

That slight hesitation of silence, when Niko stands alone in the world of Liberty City, illustrates the troublesome and deep character that lies at the center of Rockstar's new opus "Grand Theft Auto IV." A look at legendary video games »

Unlike any of the previous games in the series, GTA IV opens slowly and steadily. The first several missions don't involve guns or killing; instead they involve driving a potential girlfriend to her house, walking on the boardwalk and bowling with her, learning how to play pool, and dressing in a new set of clothes.

And it is a refreshing change. The first 10 minutes alone reveal a new, more mature creation (call it art, commercial software, whatever). Like a new music album or a movie from a serious musician or director, GTA IV felt well crafted and expertly handled; it's a more grown-up entry than any previous game in the series.

The first several missions lead gamers through the new controls, the improved shooting and aiming mechanisms, and the new cover system, all of which makes the game feel ultimately more accessible than the sprawling, endless "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas."

But GTA IV eventually gives you all the action needed, as primary characters offer up missions and introduce you to new job-offering characters, and you're required to learn how to fight, wield weapons, and kill.

Despite online rumblings about crashing games, my experience with GTA IV was technically perfect. The game didn't crash and transitioning from the single-player game into the multiplayer game was without interruption or glitches.

Given the late hour in California (I played from 1:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m.), I ended up playing with a crew of rowdy Brits, who were slightly less experienced than I was; so I handled several of them quickly and with great relish. And even on a wireless connection, every one of my online games was smooth and glitch-free.

But because Rockstar's multiplayer maps don't follow traditional multiplayer design rules, there were issues. You're given the ability to ditch your pack -- if you're playing in a team-based game -- and wander endlessly through the streets without seeing another human-controlled character.

While this open-ended design is interesting, the third online session revealed a big flaw. Casual or haphazard players will jump into a car in search of enemies and simply drive off into the wild polygonal yonder, leaving everyone else behind. My teammates hopelessly wandered around looking for somebody to shoot. That got tedious really quickly.

The game unveils itself in layers. At first only a few missions become available through your drunk cousin, Roman. Soon, you take missions from Vladimir, a small-time crook, and Little Jacob. There is a club called 8-Ball, an homage to a character from Vice City; there are also a litany of restaurants, clubs, and shops, all of which are used as set-pieces in missions.

Instead of building out horizontally as in previous games, Rockstar went more vertical this time, with giant stands of skyscrapers and subways. There is also swimming if you feel like it. While showing off the game to a friend, I drove my car off a cliff, onto a beach, and decided to go swimming, which is a one-button mechanic similar to that in Rockstar's recent Xbox 360 port, Bully.

I missed a passing powerboat, but swam fast enough to catch a large yacht and boat-jacked the pilot, who, strangely, walked off the end of the boat into the water and disappeared.

What struck me quite early is how smart the game branching is. Characters remember what you do and will react later to your earlier kindness or harsh behavior. For example, one of the first missions involving Roman requires you to defend him from a bunch of ruffians. But you also just met a woman named Michelle who shows interest. I picked the girl, and we went on a date.

But I flubbed it; while getting accustomed to the controls, I accidentally pulled out a Molotov cocktail and lit someone on fire. She quickly asked to be brought back home. Afterward, Roman chided me for picking her over him and in a short while I was given another chance at that mission.

Similarly, in one earlier mission, you'll need to take out a disruptive enemy. You climb staircases to get to rooftops, where you'll have to jump from building to building to catch him. When you finally catch him, he's hanging by his fingers on the edge of a fire escape five stories up. You can kill or save him. I choose to save him; he thanked me for like five minutes and told me he'll remember the chance I gave him later. What happens later I can't say yet, but I'm hoping it's a hefty return in my karmic account.

Each mission blended incredibly well into the open game world, as they had in GTA III, Vice City, and San Andreas. So many developers have tried to replicate these games' seamlessness, but in this regard, none have equaled it.

As the game opens up wider and wider, filling with more people and sending you into different boroughs, it's easy to get lost in the city's vast opportunities of lawlessness and murder. Shall I run over a crowd of people? Shall I beat up an old man? What happens if I drive off this ramp? How many cops can I kill before being taken down? The beauty of Rockstar's mayhem-laced game is still perfectly in balance and as alive as ever.

But Rockstar not only continues to draw you back into Niko's story, it also makes you feel for him like few other games do. You end up liking and even caring for Niko, despite the things he does.

The story's focus on Niko and his relationships remains steadfast. Early in the game, Roman asks Niko why he came to the U.S. Niko eventually spills the beans, and the core narrative arc is revealed, exposing his dark past.

At around 6:30 a.m., I fell asleep in the middle of some mission; when I woke up, Niko was at a hospital, so I decided to get some sleep. After all, I would need all the rest I could get before I started the whole process over again. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend


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